Kingsport BOE candidates field questions at Rotary forum

Rick Wagner • May 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM

KINGSPORT — Four challengers and one incumbent seeking two Kingsport Board of Education seats promoted year-round schools and an alternative high school at a forum held Friday.

However, only one of the five was very receptive to the idea of appreciably longer school days.

During the forum hosted by the Rotary Club of Kingsport, one-term incumbent Ron George, second-time candidate John Hall and Susan Bishop, Cheryl Harvey and Carrie Upshaw answered questions from Rotarians.

Asked from the audience about some schools around the world that spend 23 percent more time per day in school, Hall said more teacher-student time — not more money — would do the most good in schools.

George said the BOE is looking at extending the school day 15 minutes to allow more teacher in-service time, but “I’m not thoroughly convinced the international students are outperforming our students.”

Unlike some other countries, where only brighter students go to the equivalent of high school or college, George said the United States strives to educate all to at least a high school diploma level.

“We’re as strong as our weakest link,” George said. “Educate or incarcerate.”

Bishop said a longer day is out of the question for elementary students.

“I do not see how lengthening the school day would be of any help,” Bishop said.

“At 3 o’clock, they’re exhausted,” Bishop said. “We don’t pound it (education) in their heads like they do in other countries (like China).”

Upshaw said that in Japan, the longer days include exercise, longer lunches, more breaks and extracurricular activities in the school day.

“I don’t think we’re cheating our children out of the time they spend in the classroom,” Upshaw said, although she said it would be good to have teenagers start school later and elementary students earlier, based on results of systems that have done that.

Harvey said the key is not time but motivating students to do more while in school and at home on higher-level thinking.

She said year-round school — especially at the elementary level — lessens the summer gaps in learning.

Prepared questions given by moderator Jack Vaughn included one on ways to avoid remediation at the college level.

Harvey called for more dual enrollment, not just for honors students but all students. And Hall called for courses on how to study and after-school learning centers, dual enrollment, and collaborative efforts with Sullivan County schools.

George promoted the non-traditional high school program included in the BOE’s proposed 2009-10 budget, while Bishop cited the non-traditional high school program and more counselor emphasis on doing well. Upshaw called for getting the message out that higher education levels generally mean higher pay and cutting the teacher paperwork required.

As for the biggest challenge facing education in Kingsport and Northeast Tennessee, what should be done and what was a barrier:

•Bishop said teachers lack the time for needed one-on-one instruction with students, called for more counselors in schools, and said the barrier was not enough money.

•Upshaw cited the Tennessee Diploma Project, including its requirement for four years of higher math; suggested Higher Education Center students and instructors, church programs and business leaders tutor and mentor city students; and said the barriers are money and communicating with parents and students the importance of meeting the new requirements.

•Harvey cited the Diploma Project, called for strengthening elementary and middle school instruction, and said frustration is the biggest barrier — predicting graduation rates will get worse in Tennessee before they get better based on 30 other states that have adopted diploma projects.

•Hall cited a lack of funding and “inability to change,” emphasizing the need to hire and retain teachers who enjoy teaching and the fun of learning, not teaching to the tests. For instance, he said the current board voted 4-1 to keep funding an elementary Spanish program dubbed ineffective or at least inconsistent, and said since Washington Elementary Schools’ multi-age class students do better at the middle school level, the program should be expanded to other schools.

•And George cited the Diploma Project and the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the latter of which led to a state takeover of the metropolitan Nashville school system.

Asked whether the system should aspire to state, national or competing metropolitan area standards, Upshaw said international standards or at least national, Harvey said worldwide, and Hall said international with the caveat technical education should be stressed in high school.

However, George said to “stick to the Kingsport standards wholeheartedly” and that failing statewide scores are “not talking about the Kingsport city schools,” while Bishop said the system first must reach new Tennessee standards and reach out to students who will have trouble with four years of higher math.

Kingsport’s city election is May 19.

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